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Coming of the era of ‘national producers’

Survival audition format regaining popularity by drawing public as main player

“It’s me who will steal your heart,” sang the 101 contenders of the second season of Mnet’s idol competition show “Produce 101.” And steal hearts they did, as Wanna One, the project group formed with the 11 finalists, has since become one of the hottest K-pop acts of 2017.

The viewers, or so-called “national producers,” voted for their favorite trainees to release “hidden” photos of them, to perform specific songs for the competition and to get a spot in the finalist group. The “producers” even got to decide the lead track of Wanna One’s debut album through voting.

While some expressed their fatigue to vote for almost everything, it was the voting which gave the rookie group the market-dominating power. The strong fandom built through the voting system guarantees the concrete support for the new group even before its official debut. 

The 101 idol trainees perform the show‘s theme song “Pick Me” on Mnet’s “Produce 101 Season 2.” (Mnet)
The 101 idol trainees perform the show‘s theme song “Pick Me” on Mnet’s “Produce 101 Season 2.” (Mnet)
Having seen the success of both the show and the idol group, broadcasters, craving high viewership ratings, have set out to team up with entertainment agencies to produce similar shows.

Later this month, KBS is set to air “The Unit,” alternatively dubbed the “Idol Rebooting Project,” which brings together singers who have already debuted professionally, but failed to gain public recognition to compete for a spot in project groups -- one girl group and one boy band.

Around the same time, JTBC will air “Mix Nine” which shows Yang Hyun-suk, CEO of YG Entertainment, visiting 75 entertainment agencies around the country to look for new talent. The show teased its 400 participants which included some of the already-debuted singers. 

A screengrab from promotional video of KBS‘ upcoming survival audition show “The Unit” featuring singer Rain (center). (KBS)
A screengrab from promotional video of KBS‘ upcoming survival audition show “The Unit” featuring singer Rain (center). (KBS)
Korea saw a similar phenomenon when Mnet’s survival audition show “Superstar K” made a splash in the early 2010s. Major broadcasters, eager to cash in on the show’s success, unleased a wave of talent audition programs.

With such a saturated market the trend came to an end earlier this year with shows not being renewed. After years of increasingly scant viewership ratings, Mnet announced in March that there is no “Superstar K” in this year’s lineup, which many consider as the end of the show. SBS’ “K-pop Star,” which had still enjoyed some popularity, also finished its six-year run in April.

According to music critic Noh Joon-young, the revival of the audition format is thanks to the public’s voluntary participation. “It seems that now the public feels interested in directly participating in producing an idol rather than just passively consuming already-produced idols,” he said.

Though the previous idol competition shows did take viewer voting into account, the results were mainly decided by the judges. In recent shows, however, the cast remains as “mentors” and the medium which connects the viewers and the audition participants rather than judges actively influencing the competition results. 

A screengrab from promotional video of JTBC‘ upcoming survival audition show “Mix Nine” featuring Yang Hyun-suk, the CEO of YG Entertainment. (JTBC)
A screengrab from promotional video of JTBC‘ upcoming survival audition show “Mix Nine” featuring Yang Hyun-suk, the CEO of YG Entertainment. (JTBC)
Previous audition programs such as “Superstar K” and “K-pop Star” focused on discovering a hidden talent, especially vocals, among ordinary people. Culture critic Jung Duk-hyun says such character is no more competitive in broadcasting industry.

He said the recent shows provide a new angle to the saturated format by featuring trainees competing for debut. “Trainees are, in some sense, those who are half-prepared (to debut). The shows capture the fresh stories from the competition among the prepared, half-proven ones.”

Jung still pointed out that “While drawing the trainees into the shows can be considered as partially overcoming the limitations of audition shows, it can also be considered as (the broadcasters) have tried all they can do.”

“(The change of audition programs) is a natural course but at the same time it is a course that has no novelty,” he said.

By Kim So-yeon (syk19372@heraldcorp.com)
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